As you prepare your course each term, you take the time to thoughtfully plan out your class reading list and add the titles to your syllabus. Each reading is selected with an eye towards adding to students’ understanding of the course topics and laying the foundation for their knowledge of your discipline or field.

Though many students may pick up those works from a sheer love of reading (or because they are motivated to complete all that’s assigned), some may choose to skip the reading if they don’t see how it directly connects to their success in the course—or, they may think that listening to lectures will give them enough information to get by on a test.

Below, we’ve presented three reasons why the students in your courses may not complete your reading assignments. We also present some solutions adapted from McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, Fourteenth Edition, which can help you to get students to dive into those textbooks, novels, and journal articles you’ve placed on your course syllabus.

Why students may not complete the assigned readings

  1. Readings are never mentioned or discussed during lectures. If you don’t connect the readings to your in-class presentations, then some students may assume that the reading is just “busy work” that doesn’t have any bearing on their potential to pass your course.  However, this is not to say that your lecture needs to repeat everything that’s covered in the text. McKeachie and Svinicki cite research from Culver and Morse (2008), who suggest that asking questions about the reading or making comments such as “As you may recall from today’s readings…” can go a long way in helping students realize that your assigned readings are, indeed, a valuable part of the course and that you expect them to complete the assignments before heading to class.
  2. In-class activities don’t tie in to the reading. Again, a lack of connection to the course’s activities or discussions may cause students to believe that the reading is a “nice to,” rather than a “must do.” On the other hand, if readings do become the basis for in-class assignments, they can spark stronger understanding of fundamental concepts, lively conversation, active learning, and a deeper understanding of the topic at hand. As an example, McKeachie and Svinicki recommend assigning a one-minute paper that begins with a prompt such as “The most important idea (or two to three ideas) I got from the reading today” (35). They also note that asking students to submit their questions about the reading, and then using those questions as a starting point for that class session’s discussions, can be a good way to help students see the value in the readings.
  3. Their knowledge and understanding of the reading is never assessed. When students know that they’ll be tested on the readings (or that their completion of the reading will be assessed in some other manner), they’re more likely to take it seriously. Consider adding some activities—such as reading logs or reading quizzes—to your class assignments, and see if these motivate your students while simultaneously facilitating their review and retention of the material.

In summary: If students understand that  you value the readings, and also know why they’re valuable to their mastery of course concepts, they’ll be more likely to complete the assigned readings and come to class prepared. Though at first they may read simply because they want to get a good grade, eventually they’ll come to recognize the depth that these materials bring to their experience in your class.

How do you reinforce the value of course readings through  your lectures and assignments? Do you have a particular activity that fosters student engagement with your assigned readings? Share your ideas in the comments section.  

Reference: McKeachie, Wilbert J. and Svinicki, Marilla. 2014. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 14th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.